Picking Out a Frame

Wood or metal? Classic or contemporary? Statement-making thick or barely there minimalist? There are a lot of choices when picking out a picture frame, not to mention choosing a mat and deciding whether you want glare-free or just regular glass. My wife and I face this decision now and again when we decide to frame something important – a new photo of our children or a piece of art we’ve found.

Frames matter. Here’s another angle to framing. It’s about how conversations get framed, especially conversations about communities and organizations, the places where we live, organizations where we work.

Perhaps a visit to fictitious Midville can illustrate the point. Think of Midville as an average community. It could be a town or a neighborhood. Its residents are good folks – folks who care about where they live.

When they gather at the corner coffee shop, the beauty parlor, at their kids’ soccer games or even virtually in the online discussion board, midvillebabble.com, they talk about what’s going on in the community. Each of these discussions is framed in a specific way that sets the parameters and points toward a specific direction.

David Cooperrider, a professor of organizational behavior at Case Western Reserve University, noted that people and organizations move in the direction of their conversations, and the way in which those conversations get framed help to determine what that direction will be. Cooperrider developed something he called “appreciative inquiry” or AI. He defines AI as, “the cooperative search for the best in people, their organizations, and the world around them.”

I don’t know what conversations are like in your community, but in Midville, they are not always focused on the best of the world around them. It’s not their fault, really; most people are programmed to focus on the problems, to diagnose what’s wrong so that it can be fixed. Morning conversations around the corner table in the Midville Café are often about lazy kids, backdoor political deals and good-paying factory jobs that no longer exist. Conversations about problems. 

Cooperrider’s work isn’t based on some Pollyanna, head-in-the-sand notion of ignoring problems. It is based on the science of human and organizational behavior. The idea is that instead of focusing on negation, criticism and spiraling diagnosis, we can turn our attention toward discovery, dreaming and designing together. This is especially powerful when it comes to communities. When we come together – whether as an informal group of residents or at the invitation of some elected official or community group – the way in which the conversation gets framed makes a difference. And framing a discussion to facilitate discovery, dreaming and designing the future usually leads us to a good place.

Let’s take another peek at Midville. Some of the shopkeepers are concerned about teenagers loitering outside their stores, intimidating customers and being an overall nuisance. So, they call a meeting with the mayor and the police department to make sure someone does something about this problem. You can probably anticipate the direction that conversation is likely to take. 

Advocates of AI say that a much more positive outcome could result from a conversation framed differently, perhaps like this:  

Imagine Midville as a place where shoppers consistently have a good shopping experience and our young people have a safe place to hang out and socialize. What would that look like?

According to AI, when you frame a discussion like this and engage a cross section of people – shopkeepers, customers, youth, along with the police and the mayor’s office – in answering the question, you will get a very different outcome, one that results in creative solutions and new ideas that no single person had before entering the room.

Powerful discussions begin with “what if,” “how,” “why” and, my favorite, “imagine.” Less-powerful discussions usually start with words like “who,” “when” and “where.” When framing discussions for community conversations, one additional piece of advice is to make sure the question being asked is one to which the answer is not already known. If it is, there’s no need for any inquiry

When we go to the trouble and expense of framing something for our home, it’s usually because the object being framed is important to us; it has value. The same is true for our communities. Most of us value the place where we live. When we have conversations about our communities and our organizations, we should give some thought to picking out the right frame.

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